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SPJ calls judge’s decision detrimental to newsgathering process


Charles Davis, Freedom of Information Committee Co-chair, (573) 882-5736 or
Mac McKerral, President, (813) 679-5662

INDIANAPOLIS -- A federal judge was wrong to hold Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper in contempt of court for refusing to testify in an investigation of the leak of a CIA officer’s identity, says the Society of Professional Journalists.

“This sweeping decision undercuts more than 30 years of judicial pronouncements on the extent of reporter’s privilege and will doubtless encourage many other intrusions on the newsgathering process,” said SPJ President Gordon “Mac” McKerral.
U.S. District Chief Judge Thomas F. Hogan’s opinion, reached July 20 but not released until Monday, will be immediately appealed, Time executives said. Hogan also issued an Aug. 6 order confining Cooper “at a suitable place until such time as he is willing to comply with the grand jury subpoena,” and ordered Time to be fined $1,000 a day. The fine also was stayed while the magazine’s expedited appeal is considered, according to The Washington Post.
Hogan ruled that the First Amendment does not insulate reporters from Time and NBC News from a requirement to testify before a criminal grand jury that is conducting the investigation into the possible illegal disclosure of classified information. Tim Russert, moderator of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” agreed to an interview last weekend in which he answered a limited number of questions posed by special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald, NBC said in a statement.

The Justice Department likely will use the court ruling to demand the testimony of two journalists -- syndicated columnist Robert D. Novak, who first disclosed the CIA officer’s name, and Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus, who has written that a Post reporter received information about her from a Bush administration official.

Pincus was served with a subpoena Aug. 9 after Hogan’s order was unsealed.

The ruling is an affront to First Amendment protections for journalists’ pledges of confidentiality, which, although ambiguously outlined in the U.S. Supreme Court’s Branzberg vs. Hayes ruling, at least protect Cooper, who has written about the leak and the investigation but clearly was not the primary source of the leaker’s story.
Equally troubling is the message sent to federal prosecutors everywhere: the ruling allows prosecutors to make their case by trying to force reporters to violate confidentiality commitments, rather than by extracting answers from administration officials themselves. Those officials enjoy their freedom while Cooper faces detention.

“Protection of sources remains critical to the maintenance of a free and independent media,” said SPJ President McKerral. “If we cannot rely on the courts to protect us from government meddling in the public’s right to a free press, we have hit the wall.”
Compelling reporters to reveal their newsgathering to government investigators is contrary to the First Amendment’s guarantee of a free press. Journalists must, in rare and compelling instances such as this, be able to speak to government sources free from the threat of prosecutorial fishing expeditions. This is doubly important in stories concerning the alleged abuse of government power, stories which rarely will see the light of day without the ability to employ and protect confidential sources.
“SPJ will extend its support to all journalists threatened with contempt citations in this case and all others,” said Charles N. Davis, executive director of the Freedom of Information Center at the University of Missouri School of Journalism and co-chair of SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee. “SPJ strongly supports a reporter’s First Amendment right to gather the news free from government intrusion.”

The Society of Professional Journalists works to improve and protect journalism. SPJ is dedicated to encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior. Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, and based in Indianapolis, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed public, works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists, and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press.


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